Best Defense

Life after active duty: A former junior officer writes a letter to his old self

By "Usta B. Me" Best Defense guest columnist As a JMO who made the transition to Corporate America, I feel uniquely qualified to speak to the current debate of why officers are leaving and prove/disprove if the change has paid off. I got out for many of the same reasons consistently mentioned: employment opportunities for ...

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Cupp, 82nd Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs/Released
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Cupp, 82nd Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs/Released

By "Usta B. Me"
Best Defense guest columnist

As a JMO who made the transition to Corporate America, I feel uniquely qualified to speak to the current debate of why officers are leaving and prove/disprove if the change has paid off. I got out for many of the same reasons consistently mentioned: employment opportunities for my spouse, lack of merit promotions, sclerotic human resources, inexorable career progression via block-checking, etc.

By all accounts, I’ve made a successful transition from U.S. army officer to Corporate America manager. I was able to attend a prestigious graduate school post-Army where we learned to use terms like "platitude" and "dissonance" while holding a straight face and pretending normal people speak like us. Upon graduation, I accepted a highly competitive leadership development program for a Fortune 100 company.

Now that I am out, I’d like to send my "former me" a letter to assist me in my choice before he gets out. This is what it would say:

Dear Me,

You are fed up with the Army. I understand why. I want to take a moment to explain what it is really like "outside" to assist you in your decision.

The Good:

It has been two full years since you have worn a reflective belt. Your CSM is wrong: You can successfully run on a sidewalk without the protective cocoon that is the PT belt and not be injured. You proved that just this morning. Staff duty is also obsolete. Turns out, people can just call you on your cell phone if there is an emergency. Who knew?

Your fiancée (now my smokin’ hot wife) is able to use her degree in her current job without fear of being moved when you PCS. In economic costs alone, having a two-income house where she is able to fulfill her career potential completely exculpated you both from the fear of taking a loss in pay and benefits when you left the Army.

Finally, your wife and I (you) don’t have to worry about our next move as we have the opportunity and latitude to take positions within the company to locations which fit our desires. We also do not have the stress of future deployment cycles or career progression courses moving us involuntarily. No offense to Ft. Polk or Iraq, but you still prefer more hospitable climates.

The Bad:

Corporate America has many of the same problems as the Army. Yes, you can move up the corporate ladder quicker based on merit, but to do so you may have to uproot and move to less than glamorous places (Hello, Ft. Polk!).

Also, HR is lazy in this organization as well. Yes. You are still a beautiful snowflake, unique in every way. However, even in your current job, increased production does not always translate to higher pay and better opportunities above your peers. Plus, the pay is about the same. Based on your benefits package in the Army (BAH, Medical, Dental), you make a little less now. Granted, the aforementioned addition of your wife’s job mitigates that difference, but for your buddies with stay-at-home wives, they will likely take a pay cut.

Finally, it is harder to get stuff done when your title starts with "manager" instead of "captain." Telling people they "need to get off their ass and get something done" has turned into "we have a real opportunity to make a positive change on this."

The Ugly:

I’d be remiss to say there are things about the Army that you do not miss. For instance, the camaraderie and friendships which can only be made after a 12-month deployment do not seem to exist at this stage in my career. Maybe I am not looking hard enough, but putting a fat dip in your mouth and talking about bodily functions is frowned upon by HR. Talking about phone metrics and customer satisfaction surveys just doesn’t foster the same esprit de corps.

The Verdict:

You should still get out of the Army. Your stress levels have plummeted. Your fiancée is happier and you now live by the mantra: "I can never be happier than my wife." You’ll learn this the hard way.

Assess your goals. It is a balance. You’ll find some of the same stresses in graduate school and Corporate America that were present in the Army. From where you stand now, it looks like utopia but it is not all puppy dogs and ice cream here in suburbia.

Your friend,

Me

"Usta B. Me" was enlisted in the Air Force and later commissioned as an Army intelligence officer, deploying to Iraq in both branches. He left the Army in 2011 in search of greener pastures and found a cubicle in a big company. To avoid becoming nostalgic about his military days, he hangs a CSM rank insignia next to a reflective belt in his workspace.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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